America is chocka block with firearms. Since 1960, more than a million Americans have died from firearm homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings.
Americans own 200,000,000 guns, of which approximately 70,000,000 are handguns. A good-quality handgun can be bought for around $300; a ‘Saturday Night Special’ can be bought for less than $100. Americans are arming themselves in record numbers, and state governments are making it easier for them. In the first two months of 2009, around 2.5 million Americans bought guns, a 26% increase over the same period in 2008.
The state of Virginia now allows carrying of concealed handguns in places where alcohol is served (although if you’ve got a gun you’re not supposed to drink), and has repealed a 17-year-old ban on buying more than one handgun a month. Arizona and Wyoming are considering allowing residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit, while Montana and Tennessee have exempted their residents from federal firearms regulations.
The poor state of the economy and rising unemployment have helped to fuel fears that law and order is heading for breakdown, and so everyone needs to defend themselves from... whatever.
Underpinning all this is the much-debated Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Adopted in 1791, it states that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” At the time this was adopted, the USA was fighting a war with colonialist England. Local militias were required to ward off marauding English troops. However, since then it has become the creed of gun owners, who equate the ownership of firearms with freedom. Their case was strengthened in 2008 when a conservative-dominated Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment creates an individual right to possess guns for nonmilitary purposes.
We’ve become accustomed to news from the US of another crazed individual with a gun taking out innocent people. The notion that having more armed people on the streets somehow makes them safer seems equally crazy when viewed from a country whose police are not routinely armed. But for many Americans, it makes sense. Their politicians either fear losing votes by taking a stand, or are in the gun lobby’s pocket. Combine this with more than two centuries’ worth of gun-related culture, and it’s hard to see the body count falling anytime soon.